Jackie Wilson is a product of Detroit, being born there on June 9, 1934, and attending Highland Park H. S. It is reputed that at age sixteen (1950) he won a “Golden Glove” championship in the “Motor City”, after lying about his age to enter. This is myth! The truth is, he did lie to gain entry into the Golden Gloves contest. When his mother learned he was practicing the art of pugilism, she made him quit! This may have had a role in his pursuing a singing career. In the very early years he sang, along with Levi Stubbs of the yet-to-be Four Tops, in local clubs.
Billy Ward came upon the then 18 yr. old Jackie Wilson In 1953, at Detroit’s Fox Theater. Ward, was looking to replace his recently departed lead singer; Clyde McPhatter of Billy Ward and The Dominoes. At this time Ward realized Jackie’s range, vocal gymnastics, and showmanship — not to mention the ability to simply belt out a song — were such that no one could match Jackie Wilson. At 23 (1957) Jackie left Ward’s tutelage, went solo and signed with the Brunswick label.
His career witnessed momentum when he began performing songs co-written by fellow Detroiter Berry Gordy, later the founder of Motown. These included “Reet Petite”, “To Be Loved” and “Lonely Teardrops. ” Brunswick was never able to settle on a particular musical style for Wilson. He often crossed between R&B and pop. Jackie favored the latter where he could use his truly astonishing range to good effect. Under the orchestral arrangements of Brunswick’s Dick Jacobs, Jackie’s recordings were frequently backed by an abundance of brass and string instrumentation.
Fans (including me) believe Jackie Wilson was incapable of making a bad record. Some contend his output represents, at best, a mixed bag (my late father was numbered among this group). Everyone must admit however, Jackie’s best is undoubtedly some of the most thrilling music to emerge rom the late ’50s and early ’60s. Students of the art say his presence on stage is not at all unlike that exhibited by the “Godfather of Soul” in his heyday, James Brown. Musical scholars have noted Jackie’s singing style compared with the likes of Sam Cooke.
There are other Cooke parallels too, unfortunately. In 1961, while staying in a N. Y. C. hotel, Jackie Wilson was shot and seriously wounded by one of the many women with whom he was involved. As a result of this incident he lost a kidney and had to carry the bullet in his body for the remainder of his days. The British invasion sent Wilson’s career into the doldrums. It took a new producer, Carl Davis, to revitalize him. Davis produced the timeless soul classics “Whispers” (1966) and “Higher and Higher” (1967).
Jackie Wilson was still appearing on the charts — albeit low on the lists — when at 41 he suffered a stroke and collapsed onstage in Cherry Hill, NJ, on September 29, 1975. On this night he was performing in a Dick Clark’s Traveling Oldies Revue. Ironically, at the time he was singing his signature song, “Lonely Teardrops. ” He lingered on for another eight-and-a- half years, supposedly totally comatose. Like many things in Jackie’s ife, this fact too is disputed. Some claim he was not in a coma, but rather alert, totally paralyzed and unable to react to any stimuli.
Jackie Wilson died on January 21, 1984, in Mount Holly, NJ, at Burlington County Memorial Hospital. The official cause of death was listed as pneumonia. He further suffered the indignity of being buried in an unmarked grave in Detroit. This sad state of affairs was later corrected in 1987. Jackie was survived by his wife Harlean, sons Anthony, John and Thor and daughters Jacqueline, Denise, and LaShawn. Daughter Denise was subsequently killed in a drive-by shooting in 1987.